Monday, October 12, 2009

Lump of labour revisited

The comment I posted below in response to a Financial Times article was apparently deleted. The article is here. (I have re-written my post from memory, so the original, should it ever re-appear, will be slightly different.)

"Not mentioned in the article is technological unemployment. Typically the concept is dismissed by economists as a lump of labour fallacy, but I humbly beg to differ.

The observation that the abilities, of which the human “machine” is capable, are replicable by technological developments (such as the printing press), and that human labour can therefore be displaced by mechanical, is not a claim that the amount of work in an economy is fixed, either implicitly or explicitly.

As biological organisms made of skeleton, muscle, and brain, collectively affording them a certain manual and mental dexterity and physical strength, humans are able to perform a limited range of tasks to a limited level of skill, to be exchanged as labour in an economy. One of the things we are getting better and better at is replicating, via technological means, our own abilities in the workplace. This process began in agriculture, progressed to manufacturing, and is working its magic in services.

Machines can do more or less work as the economy demands, and can perform more and more complicated tasks, as the economy demands. The range of labour that can be performed by humans is limited, though the amount of work to be done in an economy is not (at least theoretically). As the types of labour performable only by humans diminishes, so the demand for human labour will decline. This is evidenced in stagnating wages, diminishing union power, and the stealthily climbing amount of unemployment considered by economists as “natural.” I think it was 3% in the sixties. Recent estimates suggest 7% is healthy. Soon we will be at 10%.

Technological unemployment, though uneven and fitful in its effect, is a serious issue whose connotations must be openly and bravely discussed. Trying to solve it by slowing development down only delays the inevitable, and prevents us from transitioning more smoothly to the model which must follow waged labour."

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